“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— Emma Lazarus, 1883
If you don’t mind thinking about the Bush legacy a year early, there are worse places to begin than with the case of Erla Osk Arnardottir Lilliendahl. Admittedly, she isn’t an ideal “tempest-tost” candidate for Emma Lazarus’s famous lines engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. After all, she flew to New York City with her girlfriends, first class, from her native Iceland, to partake of “the Christmas spirit.” She was drinking white wine en route and, as she put it, “look[ing] forward to go shopping, eat good food, and enjoy life.” On an earlier vacation trip, back in 1995, she had overstayed her visa by three weeks, a modest enough infraction, and had even returned the following year without incident.
This time–with the President’s Global War on Terror in full swing– she was pulled aside at passport control at JFK Airport, questioned about those extra three weeks twelve years ago, and soon found herself, as she put it, “handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep… without food and drink and…confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned.” It was “the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected.”
By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions–“by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania”–confined to a tiny room for hours, then chained, marched through the airport, and driven to a jail in New Jersey where, for another nine hours, she found herself “in a small, dirty cell.” On being prepared for the return trip to JFK and deportation, approximately twenty-four hours after first debarking, she was, despite her pleas, despite her tears, again handcuffed and put in leg chains, all, as she put it, “because I had taken a longer vacation than allowed under the law.”
On returning to her country, she wrote a blog about her unnerving experience and the Icelandic Foreign Minister Ingibjoerg Solrun Gisladottir met with US Ambassador Carol van Voorst to demand an apology. Just as when egregious American acts in Iraq or Afghanistan won’t go away, the Department of Homeland Security announced an “investigation,” a “review of its work procedures” and expressed “regrets.” But an admission of error or an actual apology? Uh, what era do you imagine we’re living in?
Erla Osk will undoubtedly think twice before taking another fun-filled holiday in the United States, but her experience was no aberration even among Icelanders visiting the US. In fact, it’s a relatively humdrum one these days, especially if you appear to be of Middle Eastern background.
In a sense, Erla Osk was one of the lucky ones. After all, she made it home relatively quickly. In the final weeks of 2007, however, a little flood of press reports tracked not just the already infamously destroyed CIA tapes that recorded “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the CIA’s secret torture chambers but all sorts of more extreme versions of the global lockdown the Bush Administration launched in late 2001, cases in which, after the snarl, the door clanged shut and home became the barest of hopes.
As a people, we Americans have not faintly come to grips with how centrally the Bush Administration has planted certain practices in our midst–at the very heart of governmental practice, of the news, of everyday life. Many of these practices were not in themselves creations of this administration. For instance, the practice of kidnapping abroad –“rendition”–began at least in the Clinton era, if not earlier. Waterboarding, a medieval torture, was first practiced by American troops in the Philippine insurrection at the dawn of the previous century. (It was then known as “the water cure.”)
Torture of various sorts was widely used in CIA interrogation centers in Vietnam in the 1960s. Back in that era, the CIA also ran its own airline, Air America, rather than just leasing planes for its torture capers from various corporate entities through front businesses. Abu Ghraib-style torture and abuse, pioneered by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s, was taught and used by American military, CIA, and police officials in Latin America from the 1960s into the 1980s. If you doubt any of this, just check out Alfred McCoy’s still shocking book, A Question of Torture. Even offshore secret CIA prisons aren’t a unique creation of the Bush Administration. According to Tim Weiner in his new history of the Central Intelligence Agency, Legacy of Ashes, in the 1950s the Agency had three of them–in Japan, Germany and the Panama Canal Zone–where they brought double agents of questionable loyalty for “secret experiments” in harsh interrogation, “using techniques on the edge of torture, drug-induced mind control, and brainwashing.”
And yet, don’t for a second think that nothing has changed. Part of the Bush legacy lies in a new ethos in this country. In my childhood in the 1950s, for example, we knew just who the torturers were. We saw them in the movies. They were the sadistic Japanese in their prison camps, the Gestapo in their prisons, and the Soviet Secret police, the KGB, in their gulags (even if that name hadn’t yet entered our world). As the President now says at every opportunity, and as we then knew, Americans did not torture.
Today, and it’s a measure of our changing American world, a child turning on the TV serial 24 or heading for the nearest hot, new action flick at the local multiplex knows that Americans do torture and that torture, once the cultural province of our most evil enemies, is now a practice that is 100 percent all-American and perfectly justifiable (normally by the ticking-bomb scenario). And few even blink. In lockdown America, it computes. The snarl at the border fits well enough with what our Vice President has termed a “no-brainer,” a “dunk in the water” in the torture chamber. There is no deniability left in the movies –and little enough of it in real life.
Ending the Era of Hypocrisy
American Presidents of the Vietnam and Latin American war years operated in a realm of deniability when it came to torture and other such practices. No American could then have imagined a Vice President heading for Capitol Hill to lobby openly for a torture bill or a President publicly threatening to veto Congressional legislation banning torture techniques. Call it the end of an era of American hypocrisy, if you will, but the Bush legacy will be, in part, simply the routinization of the practice of torture, abuse, kidnapping and illegal imprisonment.
George W. Bush didn’t invent the world he inhabits. He, his top officials, and all their lawyers who wrote those bizarre “torture memos” that will be hallmarks of his era chose from existing strains of thought, from urges and tendencies already in American culture. But their record on this has, nonetheless, been remarkable. In just about every case, they chose to bring out the worst in us; in just about every case, they took us on as direct a journey as possible to the dark side.
It’s not necessary to romanticize the American past in any way to consider the legacy of these last years grim indeed. Let no one tell you that the institution of a global network of secret prisons and borrowed torture chambers, along with those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” was primarily done for information or even security. The urge to resort to such tactics is invariably more primal than that.
Words matter more than one would think. In the Bush era, certain words have simply been sidelined. Sovereignty, for instance. If, in principle, you can kidnap anyone, anywhere, and transport that person into a ghost existence anywhere else, then national sovereignty essentially no longer has significance. This is one meaning of “globalization” in the twenty-first century. On Planet Bush, only one nation remains “sovereign,” and that’s the United States of America.
If you want to test this proposition, just take any recent case of torture, mistreatment, or secret imprisonment, including Erla Osk’s landing in New York,, and try to reverse it. Make an American the central victim and another country of your choice the perpetrator and imagine the reaction of the Bush Administration, no less the American media and the public.
Or consider another word that once had great resonance in American culture, not to speak of its legal system: innocence. Americans prided themselves on their “innocence”–even when mocked as “innocents abroad”–and took pride as well in a system based on the phrase, “innocent until proven guilty.”
Despite their repeated, thoroughly worn denials about torture, the top officials of this Administration remade themselves, in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, as a Torture, Inc. And their actions since then have gone a long way toward turning us, by association and tacit acquiescence, into a nation of torturers, willing to accept, in case after case, that a “war” against “terror” supposed to last for generations justifies just about any act imaginable, including the continued mistreatment and incarceration of people who remain somehow guilty even, in certain cases, after being proven innocent.
This is the American welcome wagon of the twenty-first century. If you really want to catch the spirit of the Bush legacy one year early, try to imagine the poem an Emma Lazarus of this moment might write, something appropriate perhaps for a gigantic statue in New York harbor of one of the guards at the CIA “black site” in Afghanistan who kept Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni, picked up and tortured into a false confession in Jordan, in a living nightmare for nineteen months. As Bashmilah described the typical guard in the secret prison, he was utterly silent, dressed all in black, a black mask covering his head and neck, tinted yellow plastic over the eyes, his hands sheathed in rubber gloves. Imagine that guard, then, holding up not a torch but a video camera and dragging chains behind him. That would be a statue suitable indeed for the Bermuda Triangle of injustice the Bush Administration has established in the six years after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
For a longer version of this piece that details many of the torture, kidnapping, and secret-imprisonment stories that melted out of December’s iceberg of news on such topics, go to Tomdispatch.com.]